The Real Story of Risk

Adventures in a hazardous world

Climate Change: A Psychological Challenge

New strategies for climate change can reduce anxiety and engage more people

Climate change challenges our world in many ways, threatening us with rising seas, drought, floods, and strained food production, and yet we’ve barely started to address this problem, despite the efforts of many.  Greenhouse gas emissions dipped during the Great Recession, but have since continued to soar, along with changes in our planet that are getting clearer every year.

Why aren’t we doing more about this?  It’s no secret that there’s a great deal of disagreement about climate change, but maybe not as much as we think, at least when it comes to the facts.  According to surveys most people know about climate change and even agree that humans are causing it. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, wrote, “Since the year 2000, numerous public opinion polls demonstrate that large majorities of Americans are aware of global warming (92 percent), believe that global warming is real and already underway (74 percent).” Most Americans agree that climate change is a problem. We’re just not doing much to fix it.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I’m sure part of the story is that people are busy and have other pressing issues in their daily lives, like working, paying bills, and taking care of our families.  And since climate change doesn’t appear to be particularly threatening on most particular days, and most coastal cities are not underwater yet, it’s easy to put off taking action for later.  Probably much later.  Climate change plays right into our blind spot when it comes to how we see risks:  it is spread out geographically, slow to develop (at least on a human time scale), and diffuse in responsibility, with no quick or easy answers for the most part.  But there’s more to the story than this.

A bigger reason why we’re not dealing with this problem may be that climate change is not just a technological problem or a political one, but a psychological challenge.  A threat this great can generate a great deal of anxiety if we let it.  So we don’t.

When facing a threat like this, we can do one of three things. We can (1) take immediate action to fix the problem, (2) get anxious and stay anxious until the problem goes away on its own, or (3) harness the power of denial to turn off the anxiety and feel better.  The answers to solve climate change are not quick and easy, and a state of constant anxiety is almost unbearable.  Given the options, denial is an easy and immediately gratifying course, relieving the anxiety that threatens to overwhelm us. “Climate change is disturbing,” says Kari Norgaard, author of Living in Denial. “It’s something we don’t want to think about. So what we do in our everyday lives is create a world where it’s not there, and keep it distant.”

Our failure to fight climate change is often blamed on climate change deniers, who have done their best to build doubt about whether climate change is a real problem. The Koch Brothers and others have been well documented to have carried out a campaign to create doubt about climate change in order to benefit those like themselves with financial interests in coal and oil.

Really it’s not this simple, though. The success of the climate deniers stems from our own innate programming that makes us receptive to their message. If we don’t see an immediate threat and can’t easily fix it right here and right now, it’s in our nature to push the threat out our mind, to deny that it’s a problem.

Climate deniers don’t invent how we think; they merely exploit our own desire to create a safe bubble of denial, to build a levee holding back the rising tide of uncertainty and allow ourselves to preserve a vision of a safe, happy, and stable world. It’s a nice vision, and helps us feel better, even it’s at odds sometimes with the world we live in.  It seems that there is a little denier in all of us, and our inner denier comes out not just to deny climate change but also to deny many other risks as well, like heart disease, where a long hard effort is needed for a payoff (reduced risk of heart disease) in the future. 

If the biggest barriers to fighting climate change are psychological rather than technological, then the solutions might be psychological too.  A change in strategy might be in order for those seeking to cultivate greater support for efforts to fight climate change.  A further deluge of facts seeking to stir up fear and a greater response may only create a further retreat into denial.  Strategies that reduce fear and create a sense that we can make a difference today with simple positive action might prove more successful.  Maybe this is why the European Union is rebranding efforts to fight climate change with renewable energy, emphasizing the positive impacts for daily life rather than the doom and gloom of uncontrolled climate change.  Moral arguments that emphasize shared values may also prove more effective, since decisions are often based on social interactions and values rather than scientific data.

Unfortunately, denial might feel good, quickly relieving our anxiety, but is unlikely to provide a lasting solution for important long term problems we face like climate change.  Better ways of dealing with climate change will alleviate the source of our anxiety, rather than simply removing the anxiety itself, and help build a better world for the future along the way.

Glenn Croston is the author of The Real Story of Risk: Adventures in a Hazardous World, exploring the twisted ways we see risks and how this affects our lives and our world.  You can read more at www.realstoryofrisk.com.  He is also the author of Gifts from the Train Station, and 75 Green Businesses You Can Start to Make Money and Make a Difference.

Glenn Croston, Ph.D., is a biologist, greenie, and the author of The Real Story of Risk, as well as 75 Green Businesses and Gifts from the Train Station. more...

Subscribe to The Real Story of Risk

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?